Flip Flop - Economics Weekly
An exceptionally hot spell of spring weather has brought out the beachwear and disagreements on the MPC.
23 April 2018
Phew! January 2017 marked the end of the two-year ‘consumer sweet spot’ whereby wage growth outstripped inflation. But in 2018 the mood is brightening. UK wages rose faster than inflation in the three months to February. Excluding bonuses, regular pay increased by 2.8% y/y, marking the strongest rate of growth since the summer of 2015. This has led some to suggest that the cost of living squeeze has ended. But has it? Inflation continues to outpace the 1% public sector pay cap. Household incomes are influenced by welfare benefits as well as earnings. A raft of working-age benefits are frozen until 2020. As a result, for many the cost of living squeeze has eased but is far from over.
‘F-word’ warning. The UK labour market continues to tighten. An additional 55,000 people were employed in the three months to February, bringing the total to a record high of 32.262 million. The proportion of 16-64 year olds in work, the employment rate, hit 75.4%, another record high. Meanwhile the proportion of working-age neither in work or looking for work, the economically inactive, has never been lower at 21.2%. Unemployment dropped to 4.2% a 43-year low. Expectations are rising that we could see a 3-handle unemployment rate for the first time since February 1975. One MPC member, Michael Saunders, has recently expressed this view. If so, wage growth should accelerate, particularly if the UK is approaching full employment. Hearing more talk of that ‘F-word’ would be very welcome.
Into reverse, with gusto. After hitting 3.1% in November last year, UK inflation was expected to retreat over the course of 2018. But not quite so quickly as this. Consumer prices rose 2.5%y/y in March, down from 2.7% in February. Women’s clothing rose less than they did a year ago, contributing to the fall. The shift in the Budget from Spring to Autumn, meaning changes to the timings of tobacco tax changes, was also a factor. Core inflation, which strips out some volatile items including alcohol and tobacco, fell to 2.3%, its lowest level in a year.
Peering through the blizzard. Retail sales slumped 1.2% in March as the spring snow kept people away from the shops. It kept them away from their cars too with petrol sales down 7.4%. Big stores had equally big problems keeping their shelves stocked as supermarkets sales were down 1.3%. But the difficulty of travelling encouraged more people to shop locally, benefiting specialist food stores who saw their takings rise by almost 12%. More time at home also meant more internet shopping and a new high point for online sales, now accounting for 17.4% of all retailing.
Enough? The Monetary Policy Committee was widely expected to hike rates again in May but a lower than expected inflation figure was enough for Governor Carney to remind us that nothing is a forgone conclusion. Cue a sharp reaction from the markets who dropped the implied probability of a May rate rise from 90% to evens. Of course the MPC could still decide that May is the right time to raise rates, but Carney’s comments mean it will be especially uncertain.
Persistent. Consumer prices across the eurozone rose 1.3%y/y in March. That was higher than February’s 1.1% but, like the UK, a weaker than expected reading. The core rate stood still at 1%y/y – it hasn’t been above 1.2% for the past five years. The persistently subdued inflation picture will keep the ECB cautious as it continues to mull over how quickly to withdraw its stimulus measures.
Forewarned. The good times for the global economy are set to continue according to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook. A global expansion of 4% is forecast for this year and next, matching 2017’s pace. The UK is set to be a bit of a laggard with growth of around 1.5% in both years (identical to the consensus view). And it wouldn’t be an IMF outlook without a warning or two. The current favourable growth environment won’t last, the Fund cautioned, with many countries requiring a bout of reform to combat the growth sapping impacts of ageing societies and lacklustre productivity.
Tarrifying prospect. Businesses on both side of the pond are becoming increasingly jittery about Trump’s trade policies. The word “tariffs” appeared 36 times in the Fed’s ‘Beige Book’ of business conditions. The word never appeared in the previous report on 7th March. Tariffs were mentioned as a factor affecting prices or a potential concern for the outlook in ten of the twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks. Exporting powerhouses have the most to fear. Financial analysts in Germany are well aware of this. Their ZEW survey of economic sentiment nosedived in April. Expectations for German economic growth in the next six months fell to their lowest level since November 2012. Expect these ripples of concern to spread.
This material is published by The Royal Bank of Scotland plc (“RBS”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by RBS and RBS makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of the RBS Economics Department, as of this date and are subject to change without notice.
Not only has the poor weather prolonged winter and darkened our moods, it also looks to have taken a fair slice off economic growth in the first quarter. With luck it’s just a blip.
You might love them or loathe them but the inescapable fact is that the UK’s recent snow days have had a big impact on business. The latest surveys suggest only manufacturers managed to escape unscathed.